Sunak vs Truss
The contest. And the challenges they'll face if they win.
After all that we’ve ended up with the Chancellor (until a fortnight ago) vs the Foreign Secretary. So much for a fresh start.
Back last October, a week after the Owen Paterson fiasco, I wrote a piece saying it was the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson, and that the favourites to replace him were Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Since then both seemed to me to have seriously weakened their chances: Sunak because of his wife’s non-dom status and associated financial issues, and Truss because of her indifferent performance as Foreign Secretary. But despite stumbling, and giving others the chance to make their case, no one else was able to do so. So we’re back where we started, but with the two contenders, particularly Sunak, damaged.
The general consensus now is that Truss is the favourite. The betting markets agree. This is because the strongest data points we have on the race – YouGov’s head-to-head polls of the Tory members who’ll now decide this contest – give Truss a clear lead by 62% to 38% (or 49%-31% if you include don’t knows). We also have an unweighted survey of members from the ConHome website showing a slightly less convincing 49% to 42% lead for Truss.
It's certainly the case that Sunak is not popular with members. He is seen by many as responsible for Johnson’s demise, a view that Boris is happy to encourage, and as the Chancellor who raised their taxes to the highest level ever. But I don’t think Truss should be seen as a strong favourite. Sunak has a better chance of catching up than many seem to think. A less discussed finding from an earlier YouGov poll found that the single most important factor for members in deciding on a candidate is “being able to win the next general election.” (Chosen by 56%). Cutting personal taxes was chosen only by 26%, and cutting business taxes by 12%.
This should help Sunak assuming we see more polling, over the next week, showing the public, and Tory voters, prefer him to Truss. So far we’ve had a range of polls showing Sunak leading Truss (e.g. this one from Techne which found him leading her 34% to 21% in a longer list of candidates among Conservative voters); and other measures favour him too. For instance MORI found 38% of the public think he’d be a good PM compared to 31% for Truss and 35% for Starmer. Opinium found 44% thought Sunak would make a good PM but only 30% thought Truss would.
Sunak comfortably beat Truss amongst all voters in the first televised debate, where she came dead last of all five and, beat her again in the second, albeit by a smaller margin. Electability is a point Sunak is already pushing hard, and he should soon have more evidence to back up his argument.
The second thing which makes me think that Sunak can still win is the extraordinary surge in support we saw for Kemi Badenoch in the final few days before she was knocked out by MPs. In both the YouGov polling and ConHome survey she beat everyone else on a head to head. This seems to me less about her, though I get why she’s a promising prospect for the Tories, and more an expression of deep dissatisfaction with the other candidates. Today’s YouGov poll found that Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt where well ahead of Sunak and Truss as preferred options for members, and that there are a lot of members still undecided. A race where the focus is on the least bad option will be more volatile than one where members have a strong preference. Hustings, press coverage, and broadcast interviews will really matter.
That said Sunak will have to make up ground fast. Members will receive their ballots in the first week of August and, last time, half of them voted in the first week, so the next fortnight will be critical. (Though this time voters will be able to swap their vote online later in the contest if they change their mind). Expect a lot of focus from Sunak over the next few weeks on how he voted for Brexit, unlike Truss, and all the things he’ll do to keep it “safe”. And a lot more verbiage about how Thatcherite he is.
The big argument, though, will be on the economy, with Sunak defending his record and insisting the key to the cost of living crisis is reducing inflation as soon as possible, while Truss will continue to push tax cuts and more borrowing. It will also be an increasingly nasty campaign – not so much from the candidates themselves as their outriders and supportive newspapers. For both campaigns the race is existential as neither the candidate nor their key supporters are likely to be offered much patronage should the other win. We also have a split between the Mail, who are aggressively backing Truss, and the Murdoch papers who are backing Sunak. So expect plenty of dirt to be dug up over the coming week.
The irony of all this is that Sunak and Truss themselves are ideologically, if not temperamentally, fairly similar. Both are centre-right economic and social liberals who entered Parliament in the Cameron years. Sunak backed Brexit from the start; Truss did enough as Trade Secretary to convince colleagues she is now a true believer, despite having initially backed Remain. Neither have authoritarian instincts, though both have been dragged into supporting populist policies. The idea that one of them is left wing and the other right is palpably absurd.
In any case we’ll know soon who’ll be the next PM. If, by the second week of August, Truss still has a clear lead in member polling then I think she is likely to end up winning. But if Sunak has caught up or is within a few points by then I think he will. And that’s where my money is at the moment, his odds seem significantly more attractive than hers.
The following sections of this post are for subscribers only and look at what both candidates might be like as Prime Minister, including my reflections on working with Truss a decade ago at the Department for Education, and how their first few months might go.
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